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Why Does Smart Lighting Still Seem So Dumb?

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of speaking on an Internet of Things (IoT) panel at CES about connected lighting. Fittingly enough, the panel was entitled “Connected Lighting Just Needs to Work,” a title that suggests the frustration and some of the challenges we’re seeing in the connected lighting space. The promise of IoT is that things that work together or with a certain degree of awareness can enrich our lives. The reality is that connecting things to the internet can complicate matters, often making them harder to install and use. At least that’s the situation we find ourselves in today.

The lighting industry turns out to be a great digital transformation study. It’s a space that depends significantly on physical infrastructure and has amassed about a century of hardware and experience. And people know how lights work: You flip a switch, and a light comes on. Immediately. They’re quite reliable. And despite the legacy of “screw in a lightbulb” jokes, they’re pretty easy to install.

Now connect a bulb, a lamp, or a switch to the internet or a local network, and suddenly it’s a far more complicated situation. Now you have to “provision” the connected light so you can communicate with it and control it. Before you do that, you have to make sure the light will even work with your existing connected lighting infrastructure—your switches, your app(s), or your control “system.” And even using the light can be a different and sometime inconvenient endeavor.

So Why Is This the Case?

The problem comes down to an experience issue. Many companies producing smart lighting products—bulbs, switches, or controllers—are so focused on the experience their product offers that they forget to consider customers’ legacy experience. These experiences shape expectations about lighting—how they install and interact with it and how it works and behaves. Further, many companies are focused more on their product and not the larger context of the environment in which it functions. As a result, you end up with a bunch of products that are incompatible with each other or perhaps difficult to use.

“Why Can’t I Just Use a Light Switch?”

Why can’t you just use a light switch? That’s a really good question! People expect to turn a light on with a wall switch or lamp switch on the cord or fixture. Yet many connected lighting products require you to use an app to turn a light on or off, adjust the brightness, or even change the color. That’s powerful and fun, and it demos really well. It’s also entirely impractical if you have a houseguest, a babysitter, small children, anyone in your household who doesn’t carry a phone on their person at all times, or a phone with a passcode and pages of apps that you have to wade through to find the right app to control your specific light.

Another issue is that sometimes smart lighting can be in direct conflict with the switches people know and expect to use to control lighting. If someone does turn off a connected light with the switch, then it’s no longer getting power…and thus no longer connected, meaning you can’t turn it on with the app again until you first turn it back on by the switch. That’s not so smart.

If you’re designing a digital experience for a connected product, you simply must take users’ expectations of the physical product as well as contextual and environmental factors into account. If you consider how people expect something to work, then you can ask the question, “how can we add value by building upon the physical, analog product with our digital experience?” And by examining and understanding the environment in which a product is used, you are more informed and can create better experiences that fit seamlessly into consumers’ lives.